Big Beer Innovation: Q&A With MillerCoors' Brewmaster

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This week, the next great wave of national beer advertisement will kick off as Miller officially unveils its ad campaigns for Miller Fortune, the new 6.9% ABV lager in the jet black bottle, meant to compete directly with the American spirits market. It’s an understandable move given the success of the rapidly expanding market for liquor, which swelled to nearly 500 million gallons consumed in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. In fact, spirits have swiped a full 6% in market share from beer since 1999—a trend that has only been accelerating. The hard stuff now accounts for 34% of the alcoholic beverage market in this country.

For the world’s brewing giants, that market share loss calls for innovation, and quick. But innovation and product development on a mass-marketed scale is no easy thing for a huge company. Each new product is carefully scrutinized like a gem under a jeweler’s glass, carefully shaped and focused to suit the perceived needs of a specific market. It takes time, effort, patience and a calculated bid to accurately shape public perception of the new product.

I’ve made no secret in the past of the fact that I don’t personally buy products from Anheuser Busch or MillerCoors, preferring to support small, independent craft brewers. But I still find the process of creativity and product development in a huge brewing corporation to be fascinating, so I reached out to MillerCoors and was graciously granted an interview with VP of Innovation David Kroll and Brewmaster Manny Manuele. Together we had a chance to discuss everything that goes into the development of a new nation-wide product such as Fortune, which I review at the bottom of this Q&A.

Paste: Alright, so with a brand new product, who generates the initial conception of what it could be?

David Kroll: We approach development from many angles. Fortune in particular was really derived from the acknowledgement that we’ve been losing share to spirits for the last five to 10 years. We did a lot of research with drinkers and bartenders in particular to learn more about that specific drinking occasion. That unlocked a fairly compelling insight that there was a need for a more complex product with the depth of flavor they find in spirits.

You will hear me using the word “occasion” a lot because we’re focusing on “How do we regain occasions for beer as a category?” Craft beer has been doing a great job of that and is great for beer because it’s driving experimentation, but it’s not unlocking every one of these occasions.

Paste: So how long does development typically last, then? What’s a typical timeframe for new product generation—from when it’s conceived to when it’s on the shelf?

David Kroll: Fortune was about 18 months in the making, which is probably a medium development timeline for us. Some products have taken as much as four to five years and some as little as six months.

Manny Manuele: Even as we were trying to identify what the alcohol strength of this product should be, consider that we brewed about 35-40 different iterations of it while trying to adjust the color, bitterness and find just the right strength.

Paste: What does the company feel has made the American spirits market so successful?

David Kroll: Well, we really had a laser focus on brown spirits, whiskey and bourbon in particular. There’s a bit of a ritual in celebrating those liquids in the glass, which is why we approached this product release encouraging Fortune to be served in a rocks glass. As it warms in your hand, you get the complexity of aromas and taste notes that change in the drinking session.

Paste: Speaking of bourbon—the branding got a little confused after an out-of-context quote from your Bloomberg interview got spread around. Was it a great concern when pieces started making the beer sound artificially flavored, or Time Magazine is writing that “Cascade hops give it its bourbon-like flavor”?

David Kroll: Yeah, obviously we can’t control everything reporters print. We quickly tried to nip that one in the bud. Every part of this brand was influenced by spirits, but it’s not actually flavored by spirits.

Manny Manuele: We quickly made everyone on our team understand that the beer’s characteristics weren’t meant to be compared to bourbon characteristics to limit any more inaccurate information going out.

Paste: What do you believe the product actually tastes like then, Manny? Are brewmasters supposed to have particularly refined palates? Are you a certified cicerone?

Manny Manuele: I’m not a cicerone, but we have a number of people on staff who are. But when I taste a product, I’m perceiving it as a five-sense experience. With Fortune, I first perceive this incredible gold-amber color and lively carbonation. The aroma has a nice citrus-grapefruit characteristic that comes through subtly from the 100% cascade hops. In the taste, you experience light sweetness from the crystal malt with slight spiciness from the hops. The cascade gives us a distinctive hop without being overly assertive.

Paste: In the product development process, do Anheuser products like Bud Platinum or Black Crown enter into the discussion? Do you acknowledge them?

Manny Manuele: When we the brewers meet with Dave and his team to talk about drinking occasions, there are some competitors’ beers in front of us. We talk about what the look and feel of our beer might be. Often from that we’ll write a brief that describes who we think our consumer is.

David Kroll: We’re always aware of competitive benchmarks. We did test Fortune among the likes of Platinum and beat them regularly. We think it’s something more assertive and complex.

Paste: So does the creation of such a different type of product for Miller mean marketing will be going in a different direction from previous packaging redesigns? Recent years have given us vortex bottles, wide-shouldered bottles, punch-top cans and retro 1970s cans. Do those drive sales?

David Kroll: You will definitely see us approaching a much wider range of beer and cider innovations in the future. Everything we’re doing brand-wide is to reinforce the authenticity of the Miller name. We believe the success of the throwback cans isn’t so much nostalgia but because the image signifies authenticity and quality.

Review of Miller Fortune In 150 Words or Less

Miller Fortune is pretty good beer. Yes, I said it. Pretty good. I don’t buy from macro-brewers on general principle, but I’m not going to deny them a positive review when the product is solid. And Miller Fortune is the most solid thing I’ve had from MillerCoors in quite a long while. It’s bigger and “chewier” than anything Miller has made in the past, but simultaneously manages to avoid being too sweet. God help me, it’s a well-crafted product. Craft beer fans are unlikely to be converted by this kind of thing, deriding Fortune as “malt liquor,” but I honestly feel that if you took this product and told drinkers it was a Vienna lager or Octoberfest from some notable American craft brewer, they would say, “this is pretty good.” Not revelatory, but solid. And considering the source, that’s saying something.